Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Draft: Leaving on an Airplane

"And it's one, two, three,
What are we fighting for?
Don't ask me, I don't give a damn,
Next stop is Vietnam."
        -- Country Joe McDonald

"All the children ran from your arms."
-- Jacques Brel, "Sons of"

My reactions to getting the lethally low draft-lottery number 63 are described perfectly and poetically in Tim O'Brien's mythic "On the Rainy River," a story-chapter from his The Things They Carried. The story's narrator and main character is, like the author, named Tim O'Brien, but the story is fictional, which allows him to tell not just his truth, but every drafted boy's truth.

In "Rainy River," Tim winds up making his decision on a rocking boat on a river between the U.S. and Canada. As he wrestles with this dilemma, the river's banks are suddenly crowded with people from his past, present and future, as well as with figures from literature, history and pop culture. Even cheerleaders with "megaphones and pompoms and smooth brown thighs" bear witness to this existential crisis.

The story makes clear that Tim's decision -- will he be drafted or flee to Canada? -- will create one world while destroying another. Of course it will. Every decision we make creates and destroys worlds, but this particular one, with its almost immediate and profound consequences, and with all those onlookers, requires more courage than the everyday, garden-variety decision.

So his decision is made in grief and anguish, as was mine, as was all of ours who stopped to think what we were doing.
Tim O'Brien, the author

Like O'Brien's narrator (I'll call him Tim to distinguish him from his creator), I couldn't understand the necessity of the war. No one's defense of it held water under close inspection. And I knew even less about it than Tim. Honestly, I didn't know the difference between the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army. I couldn't remember which was the "good" city, Saigon or Hanoi. I only knew Ho Chi Minh was being painted as the new Hitler so we could all try to generate the collaborative fear-hatred required to go kill strangers. Maybe he was the new Hitler. I didn't know.

Like Tim, I dreaded being called a "pussy" more than I dreaded the possibility of being killed. Like him, I would enlist just to avoid the embarrassment that came (in north Florida, especially) from not enlisting. So I did.

Unlike Tim, I had no real plan for escaping the draft. North Florida, for the geographically challenged, is a long way from Canada. Plus, even though Florida is the nations's southern dangler, it (the rural part) might as well be the Midwest, the heart and reservoir of our nation's most sacred values, its citizens always prepared and eager to praise the Lord and pass the ammunition. 

Therefore, there was certainly no underground railroad helping southern boys get the freak out of Dodge before it was too late. So even though I, too, felt the whole world watching in the past, present and future, I didn't put up much of a fight.

Here's the only statement I made: On one of my last days under my parents' roof on 514 West Marion Street, Madison, FL, I said to one or both of them -- while pointing dramatically at my crappy, sepia-toned, senior yearbook picture in which I sported, weirdly, a militaristic flattop propped up with butch wax -- "If something happens to me over there, do NOT say I was a hero or that I died for my country. I'm only going because I have no choice." Overly dramatic, maybe. True, definitely.

Had I been sent to Vietnam, and had I been killed, and had my family celebrated my death as heroic and patriotic, I would have, at the very least, gotten restless-leg syndrome in my urn of ashes.

Even as a teenager, I already understood that just being in the military doesn't make one a hero. Nor would getting killed in Nam make me a hero. Nor would my killing a whole bunch of Viet Cong and/or NVAs. The military often provides a stage for genuine heroism, but that doesn't mean and never has meant that its full cast and crew are comprised of heroes. 

Speaking of courage and heroism, I'm sure I said, as a teenager, "If we were still fighting Hitler, I'd be the first to enlist." Lots of us said that. But how will we ever know if it's true?

Well, the days went by, and as a student at North Florida Junior College, I spent so much time editing the school paper, the Trailblazer; playing intramural and pickup basketball; and dreading my inevitable induction that I essentially flunked out during my sophomore year. 
Look carefully and you can see Radical Roy.

Oh, and while I was at it, I went ahead and got married, but not before the two of us spent at least six weeks, maybe even longer, getting to know each other. We didn't want to rush blindly into such a commitment!

My wife and I moved to Lake City, FL, where, even as a college dropout, I was hired by the Reporter, a fairly decent daily newspaper.

Somewhere in there, I visited an Air Force recruiter who assured me that my scores on the armed forces entrance exam made me eligible to become an airman. When he asked what my career goals were, I told him I was a journalist, working for the Reporter.

"Good, good. What kind of reporting do you enjoy most?" he asked.

"Sports mainly. I want to become a sportswriter once I get out of the Army or Navy or whatever I'm gonna wind up being in."

"Let me see what I can do about that," he said, swiveling around his chair and opening a gray file cabinet. He started finger-dancing his way through some folders, pulled one out, opened it, glanced quickly at its contents, crammed it back in, emitted a brief positive grunt, and swiveled back to face me.

"You're in luck, son," he said. "The Air Force now has openings for training in journalism, which means it's pretty certain you could become a sportswriter shortly after enlisting. Work hard and play your cards right, and you might one day be the sports editor for the Stars and Stripes."*

I thought critically about it for several seconds and calculated there would be little demand for a sportswriter in Vietnam. Having reached this logical conclusion based on unimpeachable data from an actual Air Force tech sergeant, I signed on the line.

The reader is now no doubt asking, "How stupid can you be?" My answer: I was as stupid as a teenager with an undeveloped brain, the kind who marries after knowing someone six weeks, the kind stupid enough to trust authority figures. 

Oh, how those in power must love us when we're stupid, when we're gullible, trusting and horny for glory.They love the poorly educated.

Soon, too soon, it was time for my wife and me to drive back to Madison so I could say goodbye to my parents and siblings before heading off to San Antonio for basic training. Before we could properly engage in a maudlin swapping of "remember the time when" or "we'll sure miss you when you're gone" cliches, my dad quickly turned the solemn gathering into his own personal open-mike night, uncharacteristically developing the motormouth of a speed freak.

He bombarded us with stories from his WWII-era experience in the Army Air Force, as it was called at the time. Most of his yarns showcased his ability to kick the ass of guys twice his size. "I just looked at him, looked him right in the eye," he said repeatedly, and then he would tell us how he punched the big lug, usually a Yankee, in the nose, causing a rush of blood to pour down his chin and onto his khaki uniform. 

I laughed at most of his stories as I'm sure he intended, but at the same time they really gave me a nervous stomach. I was just hours from going through such shit myself, so close, in fact, I felt his fictions overlapping and intruding into my own still unborn ones.

When he ran out of stories, I shook hands with him and my brothers, hugged my mom and my sister, and said goodbye. 

For a full dose of pathos, listen to this song ("Sons of") as you read the rest:

When my dad and mom said goodbye, they were letting their oldest son go to God knows where. Just letting him go. They might as well have been watching me as a 4-year old walking alone into a dark forest in the dead of night. They had relinquished their role as nurturer and protector, having no choice but to turn me over to some other Mother, one who didn't give a rat's ass about me and was free to damage or even destroy me if Her needs required it.

No one described this necessary or obligatory abandonment better than Tobias Wolff in his no-frills Vietnam War memoir In Pharaoh's Army. Wolff is on a bus to the airport on the day he ships out to Vietnam and he knows he's fresh out of options, that "nothing could stop it" now. But maybe . . .

"Hijackers. A gang of hijackers . . . wielding shotguns and pitchforks and clubs, shining bright lights into the driver's eyes. . . . They pound on the door until he opens it. They come up the steps and down the aisle, flashing their beams from face to face until they find the one they're after. They call our names, and then we know who it is behind the blinding lights. It's our fathers. Our fathers, come to take us home.


But not as crazy as what they actually did, which was let us go." (p. 128, Vintage paperback)

My mom said that she cried for two weeks after "letting me go." 
You really should read this book.

My dad, on the other hand, was from the generation of men who didn't show emotions, so I was never quite sure if he even liked me. But according to my sister Martha, that night after I headed back to Lake City, he never went to sleep, but sat weeping for a long time on the edge of his bed, weeping in a subdued manly fashion, then walked like a ghost through the unlighted little house and into my empty bedroom, then retreated to his bed and wept some more, and so on throughout the night.

Even now, as an old man, a parent and a grandparent, I don't know how our parents let us go like that. What an impotent, hopeless, devastating feeling it must have been. The worst part must have been admitting to your children that you were helpless, that in some sense, they, your beloved offspring, did not altogether belong to you. "You, my child, are subject to eminent domain, and, regardless of my love, you are no more than that."

My wife and I said our goodbyes the next day at Lake City's Greyhound station where a bus would take me to the induction center in Jacksonville. I will not attempt to cast the net of language over that grief. I'll just remind you we had only been married for six weeks. We were two kids in love.

On the way to the station, the radio plays “The Long and Winding Road,” and I’m on the passenger side looking at a road, already thinking in metaphors at 19, and I’m unsure if I should be thinking that the long winding road has led me to my wife or, cruelly, to her first, then to the Air Force weeks later. 

Either way, my eyes water up as I ache from loss. Loss of a boyhood that supposedly began to fade in the heartbeat separating the purchase of a great baseball glove and an affordable wedding band. Loss of my wife and the supposed beginning of my manhood. Loss of freedom and of any illusion of control. 

Gazing out the window, I slouch under the horrible burden of the inevitable. The bus station isn’t going away. Jacksonville, again, is too close.I know every day, starting today, will be filled with angst and misery. Everything is going to get uglier, and it is still possible I could soon be in Vietnam.

Yes, I am a man now, but, listening to Paul sing "Long and Winding Road," I lean my head against the window and, like George's guitar, gently weep.

*Our national armed-forces newspaper. And of course the recruiter was lying. He had to make his quota!


  1. Roy, I am again struck by your story. you are speaking of my uncle Rogers and aunt Joyce and my beloved Madison. Each episode is a jewel. Forwarding this one to Dad!